Intentional Deliberate Silence

Well, Christmas and New Year’s Eve have come and gone. They are often noisy events. More noise on top of what is already a noisy existence in our world. Have you noticed? It is noisy out there in the world – in restaurants, stores, shopping malls, theatres, everywhere. And, it is noisy in our homes with the television going, kids on iPads, iPhones, Spotify, SiriusXM, and numerous other ways to get our ‘noise fix’ for the day.
I took one of my daughters out for lunch just before Christmas. I arrived early so I could relax and read for a few minutes. But, the music was playing so loud it hurt my ears. And, the staff were over the other side of the restaurant talking to each other. Well, really they were literally yelling at each other. They had to yell to be heard. Sad. When my daughter came and the lunch crowd began to arrive – they turned the “noise” up. First and last time I will spend my time and money there.
During the holidays I was having a great night’s sleep when all of a sudden I woke up. Something was different. Now, I live in a fairly quiet house. And, my office and study are upstairs and away from normal life and people traffic. So, I am use to quiet even when working. But, that night I woke up and knew something was different. It was creepy silent. The power had gone out in my region of the city. And, all the white noise that is normally there was all of a sudden quiet, gone, still. The noise went from quiet – I would say silent – to creepy silent. The noise dropped from silent to terrifying. The dozens of devices that are usually receiving electricity – the clock, the iPhone charging, the computer (which is never turned off), the fridge in my study (you know, Coke Zero), the freezer, the modem, the fan. They were no longer buzzing. That was true silence. And I realized that I had not really “heard it” for ages.

I think we have just become use to the constant noise that is in our world. Dare I call it noise pollution. Our minds block out a lot of the noise and so we don’t pay any attention to it – thus it does not even register that it is out there. So, even a quiet place – like Starbucks where I sometimes go to read and write – is not really quiet. I have just learned to block out most of the noise – the coffee machines grinding coffee, the steam being let out of the milk warmers, the music they play, the ice box lid sliding back into place, the scooping and rattling of the ice for a drink, cups and lids snapping, names being called out when an order is ready, doors opening, the drive-thru window opening, and people talking at the next table.  It is amazing how noisy it  really is for a “quiet place” that many people use for work – and how good we have gotten at being numb to the noise.
Noise distracts. Numbs. And we are surrounded by white noise even though we often fail to hear it or recognize the influence it is having on us. The damage it is doing. As a society, we have normalized insane levels of noise. It is difficult today to find the quiet that we need – as humans, as believers who are in a personal relationship with Jesus.
Here is what I have discovered…
Silence is quiet. But it also roars,
Noise distracts. Numbs.
And while the white noise all around us is certainly not ideal, I don’t think we realize how quickly “normal” noise crosses into damaging noise. This is especially true when it comes to our spiritual life and our spirit’s connection with God’s Holy Spirit.
So, during the Christmas and New Year’s break from active ministry I have worked diligently to keep family activities at a minimal so that I could have some serious quiet – Intense silence. I have worked hard to carve out time for ‘Intentional Deliberate Silence.’ Add to this being alone for an extended period of time – it called “solitude” and it is a receipt for renewal and discovery.
Henri Nouwen, a powerful Christian writer and activist, said about his experience with silence and solitude: “Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born.”
In other words, it is not a therapeutic place. It is a place where you go to die.
He went on to say that silence is such a force because it is truly one of the only places we are laid bare. Completely naked.
No calls to make. No meetings to attend. No tasks to accomplish. No music to listen to.
It’s complete nothingness. He goes on to say, “A nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.”
When we first think of silence and solitude, we may not care much about it, or we may think it sounds religiously sexy and hipster, cool, and trendy.
Until we try it.
And then we are shocked and maybe terrified by it.
Because in silence we feel exposed and naked, and weirdly we become noisy. Not outwardly but inside our heads. So we quickly dismiss it. “Nah, I’m good.”
But here’s the unsexy and unpolished truth: our aversion to that nakedness and the awkwardness and ugliness we feel are actually why we need to do it. We need silence and solitude. If we never experience it, we are continually buzzing, always anxious, wired, and on edge, empty and spiritually thin and malnourished.
This, of course, is what we see in the Church and the lives of individual believers today. A lack of spiritual life and vitality. People going through the ‘Christian motions’ without the emotions. Going through the traditional, religious, daily habits of prayer and Bible reading and yet not experiencing life. Just existing. Or, already spiritually dead and not knowing it. As Paul reminded Timothy, these are people “who hold to the outward form of our religion but deny the power thereof.”
And here’s the worse part: This feeling of nakedness, ugliness, and awkwardness is just the beginning. If we stay in the desert (solitude with silence) longer and push through it, up bubbles a myriad of distractions, random ideas, images, and thoughts that feel so uncomfortable we wonder, “Do I really have these thoughts? Where is this coming from?”
But to stay put in the quiet place is to stay put in the desert. A place we can’t survive on our own, where mirages of our false self pop up again and again. And we are desperate for someone to save us and meet us there. Thirsty for just a drop of water.
And that’s where these words of Henri Nouwen speak to us over and over again as a beautiful reminder.
“The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Silence and solitude are like a graveyard for all the worst in you and your false self. Dare we say, your religious self.
And, if we want to live into our true selves, the ones Jesus created us to be, we have to enter through the graveyard. We have to take ourselves to the desert. There we will finally discover the real person that God created. Burying the person that we have allowed others and our culture and society to form. The one that religion has approved even though your life was lived on the surface and you were spiritually thin or maybe even dead.
Silence and solitude hurt. So, we naturally work hard to avoid it. We want to avoid the silence and the solitude because we don’t like what happens and what we see when in the silence. And, we have been fed this non-biblical idea that time alone with Jesus (our morning devotions)  was therapeutic, beautiful, serene, and peaceful. Just not true. Being in His presence is life changing. And, it means facing who we are so that we can become who He created us to be. That is difficult and can even be seriously messy and painful.
So, it seems we have two options. We can go around my true self and stay within the noise. Or we can go through to our true self within the silence and the solitude.
The beautiful part is that even though it’s messy and painful and glaring, we aren’t alone.
Jesus meets us there. He was waiting for us. In silence. In our pain. And let’s be honest; sometimes it feels like He doesn’t show up. But when we keep showing up – again and again – He doesn’t leave us out in the cold alone.
As the prophet Isaiah said, Jesus gives us “streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19). He meets us in the place of death with sustaining life. He won’t take us out of that place, but He will sustain us in it.
In fact, when we see His face in those moments, it’s almost as if we’re not waiting for Him; it’s as if He’s been waiting for us. In that mundane, everyday ordinariness, we see Him. Face to face. Eye to eye. And we start to hear something different.
Not noise, but His voice. And He says, “This is your true self. The one I saw when I died for you. I’ve been here the whole time, waiting for you to get here.”
We need a “quiet revolution.” There is simply too much noise too often everywhere we go. The other day coming back from Eastern Canada to my home out west there was music playing on the plane as we loaded ourselves and our bags into the small space we purchased by obtaining a ticket. When we landed the same music came back on as soon as we came to a stop. Now listen (pun intended), we were not paying any attention to the music. We were busy squeezing ourselves into the small space we rented and then trying to get ourselves and our carry-ons out of the small space and off the plane as quickly as possible.
My point: there is noise everywhere even when no one is wanting it or it is just adding to the noise and commotion of life in general. We need a quiet revolution.
Recently I read the following in a great book I took time to read as I drank great coffee in the stillness and solitude of my study – in an oversized, comfortable chair that has been my friend for 30 years. (I’ll leave the quotation marks out – anything in brackets I have added)
When we think of famous rebels or revolutionaries or resisters from history, we tend to think about noise and violence, about warfare and a small band of militia fighters trying to take down an empire. (You know, for example, Star Wars!)
Not me. I think about Fred Rogers.
Yes, Mister Rogers.
Of course, there’s the urban legend he was a Navy SEAL and wore those awesome cardigan sweaters to cover up full-length arm sleeve tattoos. But I don’t mean in that regard.
Mister Rogers was a rebel and a revolutionary because of how different he was on television. I remember watching him as a kid and gravitating towards his peace and calm and secure quietness – maybe because I always had such a tough time with those exact things.
Looking back now, it’s astonishing to think about what he did. How he predicated his show on calm, slow, methodical, and pointed talking. Yet silence and slowness are now treated like diseases to be eradicated. Television inherently calls for more noise and stimulation. The cuts and pace and music are intentionally nothing like real life…In fact, especially during Mister Roger’s era, I remember cartoons growing in noise, speed, and stimulation. Today most animated shows are an assault on the senses, causing violence to our more sensitive awareness. Attempting to entertain and stimulate via a metaphorical shock that ends up frying the more fragile parts of us.
Rogers knew that, and he knew it was creating a culture of buzz and anxiety. So he fought for the opposite.
Think of the boardroom fight that must have happened at least once or twice. Fred, you can’t be silent for ten seconds and say or do absolutely nothing on TV. That’s the equivalent of a year in television time! People will immediately turn it off.”
But Rogers knew the difference. The media’s culture of noise is like giving someone meth or cocaine. It overstimulates, lies to your senses, and then something in you weirdly craves it again – even though before you experienced it you never realized you desired it.
The only way to fight something like that is with the anchored, deep, slow presence of silence.
Silence today is rare, so undervalued, that it is an act of resistance.
Rogers would use that silence strategically. “Silence is the greatest gift we have,” he once said. And he fought for that silence everywhere.
He even had a ritual in which every meeting, spanning across decades, had to start with silence. He’d instruct his staff and team to take one minute at the beginning of the meeting to think of a person who had a positive impact on their life. And he’d watch the time and tell them when the minute was up.
One year he was invited to the White House for a conference on children’s education and television, where he met with Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and the highest-level executives of PBS. And how do you think he started that meeting with some of the most powerful people in the world? With sixty seconds of silence during which they were told to think of someone who had an impact on them.
He did the same thing when he accepted his Lifetime Achievement award at the 1997 Emmys. In the middle of his speech, he took off his watch, told the audience he’d keep the time, and led them in the very same exercise. He was leading not just the audience in the theatre, but also 18,744,000 people watching all over the country in the very same moment. And it was clear from the first second or two, when a few in the audience laughed or howled, that they thought that he was just joking.
But he was serious.
It was the Emmys and millions were watching. One second of silence could easily lose those millions of viewers.
I particularly love Esquire’s account of the moment:
And he lifted his wrist, and looked at the audience, and looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time,” and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked … and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds … and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the be-glittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.
I wonder how many that night truly experienced their first minute of intentional, deliberate silence.
To watch this special time go to:

Here’s the truth we have to reckon with: slow or silent space doesn’t mean wasted space – no matter how much our world tells us it does.
Empty space does not need to always, inherently, be filled.
It just can be.
What would it look like if we were people who reclaimed spaces of silence as an act of resistance in our daily lives?
For another amazing video … Mister Rogers was reunited with Jeff Erlanger, a quadriplegic man in a wheelchair who had been on his show decades before as a kid. Mr. Roger’s gentleness and tenderness in that moment is honestly one of the most real and beautiful moments I’ve ever seen on TV. It’s when Mr. Rogers showed himself to be a resister and rebel all over again.
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